The early autumn garden

As autumn begins and cooler temperatures arrive there are fewer blooms, and foliage shows signs of the imminent change to dormancy. With a relatively cool and wet summer, fewer plants have been stressed by heat, but several shrubs and trees have reacted to damper than usual conditions by dropping foliage early so that the garden’s appearance is very typical at the end of September. Several nights with temperatures in the upper thirties have triggered trees to begin their annual change in foliage color, though the change will not be evident for many trees until after the first frost (which cannot be far off).Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

The native Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, above) passed out of bloom weeks ago, but now the related variety ‘Chocolate’ (Eutrochium rugosum ‘Chocolate’, below) is flowering. In fact, I don’t believe that the original plant of ‘Chocolate’ exists any longer, and who knows what could have happened to it since it is vigorous and sturdy, but the few seedlings that are scattered about the garden have lighter, greener foliage than ‘Chocolate’. The flowers are ample evidence that these are progeny of ‘Chocolate’, and it’s not unusual for seedlings to vary, as the ones in the garden do. At the corner of the garage several seedlings have massed together, and it’s only possible to discern that there are several plants because there are differing shades of dark green to just plain green foliage within the group.Seedling of Chocolate Joe Pye weed

There are fewer butterflies in the garden in early autumn, but neither butterflies or bees pay much attention to the flowers of the ‘Chocolate’ seedlings. Still, it is a pleasant enough plant, though not nearly as valued as the native Joe Pye. Currently, the bumblebees are busy with the speckled flowers of toad lilies (Tricyrtis, below), and with cooler weather all cultivars are now at peak bloom. If there is no severe drop in temperature (and hard frosts are rare in northwestern Virginia in October) these will remain flowering through the end of the month, with a few stragglers into November.Toad lily in late September

One toad lily was nibbled nearly to the ground when I missed it while spraying deer repellent in mid summer. This has happened before, and the toad lily will usually recover nicely and flower a few weeks later than others if the damage is done early enough. But, this one was eaten too recently, and I’m guessing that there will not be enough time before frost for it to set bud and bloom. There are twenty or thirty of various types of toad lilies in the garden, so the blooms of this one plant will hardly be missed.

Toad lily in late September

Other than an occasional problem with deer when I overlook one when I’m spraying a repellent, toad lilies are sturdy perennials that are not very particular about being planted in nearly full sun or part shade. I’m guessing that they prefer a bit of shade, but a few that I’ve planted in more shade have stretched noticeably, while ones in more sun are more compact. For a gardener who is encouraged to try toad lilies I say, don’t worry about the variety. If one or another is not readily available, don’t worry, they’re all splendid plants and there is no reason to delay until a specific cultivar can be found. I have hopelessly jumbled mine so that I barely can recall which is which, but this isn’t really much of a problem since all are marvelous.Japanese windflower

Gardeners are invited to plant Japanese windflowers (Anemone ‘Whirlwind’, above) as simple to grow and carefree, but this is another that bedevils me.  I particularly favor the single, pink ‘September Charm’, but unfortunately it has disappeared along with the single, white ‘Honorine Jobert’. I’m quite certain that the ever expanding shade in the garden is the culprit, and undoubtedly nothing that I’ve done has caused such poor success.  It seems that in only a part day’s sun windflowers will not work for any more than a year or two (at least for me), so I must resist planting in just any spot of open ground without regard to its sun exposure. No doubt this is a good rule to follow when planting anything, but it can be difficult to find space for so many treasures with the limited amount of sun in the garden.

September Charm Japanese windflower in mid October

Little harm is done

Scattered leaves and branches of two ‘Silver Cloud’ redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’) and a blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica, below) are covered by the finely spun webs of fall webworms. Every day the webs grow, and the tiny worms devour leaves as they progress through the tree. Commonly available insecticides provide immediate control of the worms, but spraying with a stiff jet of water is often as effective. Instead, I do nothing, or at least, almost nothing.Fall webworm on blackgum

In a one acre garden it should not be surprising that it is inconvenient to drag a hose from one end to the other, and anyway, most of the hoses in my garden dry rot from disuse so they’re of little use once you’ve decided to finally put them to work. So, the jet spray of water to dislodge the webworms  is unlikely to be practical.

I try my best to watch out for the bees and butterflies (below) that occupy the garden, so I avoid using pesticides whenever possible. The last whenever was six or seven years ago when I sprayed a ‘Cherry Dazzle’ crapemyrtle as a last resort to prevent aphids from killing it. A few years earlier, a larger ‘Catawba’ crapemyrtle didn’t leaf in the spring after a heavy infestation the previous summer, so I was particularly concerned by the infestation on ‘Cherry Dazzle’. Fortunately, the smaller crapemyrtle was saved, and since then I haven’t seen enough damage from any kind of bug to worry about. I’m still on the lookout for aphids, and I could change my mind, though I’m more likely to do nothing or douse the plant with insecticidal soap rather than a pesticide.Tiger swallowtail on Oakleaf hydrangea leaf

Occasionally, I simply break off a branch tip where webworms have invaded, and sometimes this works, but most often they’ve spread further, and that’s what’s happened this year. Now, a large enough part of the trees is covered by webs so that it’s unsightly, and this will increase before they’re finished. But, cold temperatures and frost are just around the corner, and soon the trees will be defoliating, so what harm is there in letting the webworms finish out the season? Yes, if they’re not killed they’ll be back next year, but they’d probably be back anyway from some other source, so what is accomplished from spraying poisons to kill them?Japanese beetles

I rarely pay any attention to the Japanese beetles (above) that occupy the garden to varying degrees in mid summer, and inflict minor damage, but in early spring I’m on the watch for tent caterpillars that occasionally crop up. If these are not removed, and the tents are easily dislodged and removed by twirling the web around a loose branch that has fallen, the damage will be evident through spring and summer. There are many other leaf eating caterpillars and bugs out there, and if you’re bothered by these you can spend most of your days plucking, twirling, or spraying to be rid of this or that. But, mostly I’ve found the damage doesn’t amount to much, and if you rid the garden of these nuisances for a while, they’re likely to be back sooner than later, so why bother?Caterpillars on river birch leaves

The harm in taking lethal steps to rid the garden of pests is that there are many other beasts that are effected. Today, I’m bothered that there are companies that specialize in killing any and all insects that happen anywhere close to the home. Their primary targets are mosquitoes and ticks, and with the nuisance and threat of Lyme disease this is an easy sell to many homeowners. The companies are also proud to claim that they eliminate ants and bees as well, with their websites proclaiming the evils of these valued pollinators. Along with pests, insecticide treatments also eliminate worms, so the reasons for avoiding these treatments should be obvious.Goldenrod crab spider

Most recently I noticed a small yellow spider on a small citrus tree that spends its summers outdoors. There are many dozens of various spiders in the garden, and though it is a bit of a nuisance to walk through a web at every turn, I have no desire to eliminate them. The Goldenrod crab spider (above) does not capture its prey in a web, but as I observed over several days, it stays quite still at the tip of the branch until some unfortunate soul wanders (or flies) near. For several days the spider didn’t move a fraction of an inch, and then I looked to see that it had captured a small bumblebee. Certainly, I do my best to protect the bumblebees, but I don’t wish to rid the garden of the bee or the spider. I’m comfortable in suffering through a bit of damage, and perhaps even an occasional lost plant so that all the various beasts can make this garden their home.

Ignoring the obvious

I’ve been warned. Never, ever plant mint in your garden. Never. It’s too aggressive, I’m told, and once it’s planted it’s impossible to keep in bounds. Planting mint is an invitation to disaster.

I have little doubt that this is sound advice, but either I’m a skeptic or not a good listener (or a slow learner, or maybe all of the above), so a few years ago I planted a few small pots of Chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita subsp. citrata) in the damp depression where rainwater from neighboring lots flows into the wet weather pond I constructed at the back property line. This area stays damp for much of the year, and the pace of the stormwater continually eroded soil from this corner of the property. So, I figured what the heck, I need something aggressive to stabilize the soil and to root quickly so that the plants are not washed away in the next storm. Despite warnings to beware, I considered it worth a try.Houttuynia Chameleon

In my stubbornness, I’ve ignored good advice and made mistakes before. Long ago, I planted Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, above), and have lived to tell about it, though I’ve done my best in recent years to eradicate it. Everywhere, that is, except the backside of this small retention pond where I was desperate to find a solution, any solution to survive the onslaught of weeds invading from the marshy meadow just beyond the property line. Houttuynia must be every bit as rambunctious as mint, but it smells worse (a lot worse), and I wouldn’t dare to recommend it. Planted at the edge of my first pond twenty years ago, its colorfully mottled foliage eventually faded mostly to green, then it grew to be downright unneighborly, overwhelming helpless victims in its path. So, a bit at a time, it’s been pulled and sprayed until little remains.Chocolate mint flowering in early September

On the back of the pond Chameleon plant is sandwiched between tall crapemyrtles, woody shrubs, and vigorous brambles, so here it behaves as well as it’s capable of, and it has spread to keep weeds down satisfactorily. The mint is similarly constrained by a large evergreen magnolia and blueberries that tolerate the often wet soil, so that it is most unlikely to create major headaches. But, I can attest that it doesn’t give in without a fight, and the jury is still out whether it will create problems in the future. Will I bet that it’s not going to be a problem with the safeguards I think have been figured in? Maybe, yes.Chocolate mint

In any case, for an area where erosion is a problem, and the the mint’s vigorous growth is acceptable, it seems to be a worthwhile risk. After a few years, the mint doesn’t show signs of escaping its confines, and there’s no doubt that it has stabilized the eroding soil. It also captures large debris that would eventually gum up the works in the pond. And, it looks and smells good. Even before the mint begins to flower in late summer, the foliage is pleasant enough, and in bloom it’s an exceptional tall ground cover. As long as it cannot escape.

Fewer bees and butterflies? Not here

The Seven Son tree (Heptacodium miconioides, below) was a favorite of pollinators (mostly bumblebees and wasps), and it is unfortunate that it was destroyed in a storm a year ago. I’m mostly satisfied with the red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea) planted in its place, but it is not a suitable replacement as far as the bees are concerned.Seven Son Tree blooms

I’ve read recently that many gardeners see a steep downturn in the number of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators in their gardens this year, but I see no evidence of this. To the contrary, this year there have been significant increases in dragonflies (that are not significant pollinators) and butterflies, and no noticeable changes in the number of bees, wasps (below), and hoverflies. In recent years there has been a decline in the number of honeybees, but the populations of other pollinators appear to be fine in this garden.Wasps on Sun King aralia

Until the past week, on any sunny afternoon the wide spreading clump of Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginium, below) was a magnet for every buzzing beast within two counties. I have become quite careless in taking photographs in close proximity to various bees and wasps, but still I exercise caution around the mint. A single sting is not so bad, though it is a rare occurrence for me, but I hesitate to chance disturbing the numbers of nasty looking wasps present on the mountain mint.Wasp on Mountain Mint in mid July

I suspect that the fast spreading mountain mint has filled any void due to the loss of the Seven Son tree, and now it has reached the point where it must be tamed in future years. I heartily recommend mountain mint for a native or pollinator garden, but the gardener must be aware that it will quickly fill into its allotted space, and more. I advise that mountain mint be located between larger shrubs and trees that are too large for it to overwhelm, for anything else in its path will hardly slow it down.Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

If I were forced to select only  one flower to please the pollinators, that would be Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum ‘Little Joe’, above). While mountain mint is dominated by bees, wasps, and hoverlfies, Joe Pye is favored by Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. This summer the swallowtails moved between the Joe Pye and Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, below), and later to the panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) in unusually high numbers.Chaste tree in July

At the start of autumn there are fewer blooms, and fewer pollinators as cooler temperatures arrive, but bumblebees are attracted in numbers to toad lilies (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’, below). The intricately constructed flowers are perfectly formed so that sticky pollen is heaped onto the hairy backside of the bumblebee as it forages deep into the flower for nectar.Miyazaki toad lily and bumblebees

In another week the Tatarian daisies (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’. below) will flower, and as these fade a month later the season for the pollinators will end. At one time ‘Jindai’ dominated the area behind the large koi pond, but now the panicled and oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) have spread to threaten it. Several weeks ago I carved out a space for the tall growing aster so that it will be fine this year, but I fear that the woody shrubs will eventually capture this space. That will be a loss for the bumblebees that visit it regularly in early autumn.Jindai aster

Forest grass

A friend tells me she has had a horrible time getting Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, below) to live in her garden, and she wonders how it is possible that mine flourishes. I’m reluctant to tell her that I’ve done nothing special to encourage it. It just grows, though it takes a few years to get going after it’s planted.Japanese Forest grass

In fact, I planted a few pots of Forest grass earlier this spring beneath the shallow rooted, moisture sucking European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’) in the front yard, and unsurprisingly these have been slow to catch on. They haven’t died, and I don’t expect they will, but the grass would prefer more moisture and it will take a few years longer under the beech to gain a solid foothold.

A few years ago I divided a large clump of Forest grass growing along the stream in the rear garden to transplant under a wide spreading Seven Son tree (Heptacodium miconiodes). The transplant took well, but then the tree was toppled in a summer storm last year. The red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea) that was planted in its place is considerably smaller, and its shade is not yet sufficient to shelter the Forest grass. So, it’s showing the stress of too much sun for now, but I expect that when the horsechestnut grows a bit larger in the next few years the grass will get along just fine.Japanese forest grass along a stream

I often find it difficult to define exactly what conditions most benefit a plant that is thriving, but two large clumps of Japanese Forest grass are shaded for at least half of the day, and both are protected from the hot, late afternoon sun. The one by the stream is more shaded, and perhaps the soil is cooled and slightly more moist beside the rubber lined stream. The other vigorous clump is in a sunnier spot, and under an upright growing Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Okushimo’) so that the soil is considerably drier.

So, other than a clear preference for a half day’s shade, I haven’t a clue what makes Japanese Forest grass happy. To advise, I’d guess that a deep, moist, but well drained soil is preferred rather than root infested, dry shade, but this description goes for just about any plant, and it’s rarely found and so fairly worthless. I suppose that regular irrigation will solve some of the dry shade issues, but I never water, and Forest grass seems to do just fine without as long as you have a little patience for a year or two after planting.A handful of hosta and Japanese Forest grass

The reason for growing Japanese Forest grass is quite simple, and there’s hardly another plant for shade that works so well. Any place where a hosta works, it’s ideal, with the added benefit that deer leave it alone. Since Forest grass grows only about a foot tall it belongs at the front and edge of a planting bed, and its muted gold foliage combines well with green foliage. It’s not so bright as to clash with most flowers, and even if it did the blooms fade quickly and the colorful foliage looks delightful for months. I don’t think I’d plant Forest grass beside a mass of pink flowered impatiens, but the narrow, gold striped foliage is a wonderful textural contrast to just about any broadleafed plant, and it is delightful planted beside any of the large leafed hostas.

I’m not as enthusiastic about other varieties of Forest grass, though they have their charms. ‘All Gold’ looks a bit faded to me, and the mixed colors of the foliage of ‘Beni-Kaze’ are a great idea, but it looks a little off to me. With irrigation I suspect that both will give a better impression, but to me ‘Aureola’ is still the better plant. My only problem with Forest grass is that it grows a bit too vigorously, and my wife insists on chopping it back off the garden’s paths. Japanese Forest grass has a graceful, arching habit that doesn’t take well to pruning, and it works perfectly to gently flop over the edge of a stone pathway. If I can only convince my wife.

The overflowing garden

Understandably, many gardeners prefer a large measure of order and tidiness in their gardens, even if their shrubs are not pruned into a variety of geometric shapes. Not that I refer to my wife as a gardener, but that’s her preference. She will mostly tolerate wide spreading shrubs and perennials that flop over one another, but let a branch stray over one of the garden’s paths and she commences to hooting and hollering. If I don’t catch her and put a stop to it, she usually heads straight to the garage to grab her pruners to lop off the offender.The path to enter the back garden

I don’t mind that branches grow into a path or patio, and in fact a dwarf spruce has turned a small patio, that was really more what you would call a landing, into a path. The circular bluestone patio was only ten feet across from the start, and of course it’s still ten feet across, but the spruce covers almost half this width at one point. Which is just fine with me. On the far side a green leafed weeping Japanese maple grows at least three feet into the patio. There’s still plenty of space to pass, but not for much else, and if you wanted to perhaps set up a grill, well, there’s not enough room. Anyway, there’s a grill on the deck fifteen feet away, so there’s no need for more space, and what’s the problem with the spruce, or the maple?

Japanese maple and Ostrich ferns

Both trees look perfectly fine growing far over into the patio, and either would be ruined if I allowed my wife to butcher them back to the bluestone’s edge. I suppose that someday this will become a problem, since both will continue to grow, but they’ve been there for nearly twenty years, and I expect it will take that long again for it to become a problem. At least, as far as I’m concerned.Hosta, ivy, and Ostrich ferns

From this patio the path leads across two large stone slabs that bridge a section of one of the garden’s ponds, then stone steps lead down to another, larger circular patio. Tall nandinas and occasionally a rose lean into the path, though it’s still easily passable. While the thorns of the rose should be the bigger concern, I often find branches of the nandina in the trash that my wife has chopped while I was looking elsewhere. The tall stems of nandina are prone to leaning when they’re wet, and before I have a chance to object, they’ve been lopped off. And here is the problem. I’m certain that you con’t care at all about my personal problems, but if my wife and I have a disagreement over anything, it’s not about money, or shopping, but why did you prune the nandina without checking with me? I know, everyone should be so lucky.Sieblodiana elegans hosta

And, it’s not just shrubs and trees. Hostas are a big offender, and there are hellbores, and sweetbox. Wherever I’ve planted the splendid Japanese Forest grass, there’s no doubt that it will stray over a path. Probably far over, and like the big leafed blue hostas in the side garden, the flopping foliage is often too wide spreading to step over or around, so you must just push through. Long ago, a black snake hung around the garden for a few years, and it was a good bet that you’d find him in the cool shade under one of sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ huge leaves. No harm ever came of it, but the threat of the little guy lurking allowed the hosta to completely obscure the stone path.
Hpstas and Japanese Forest grass

Whether the subject is the border of a patio, path, or pond, I prefer that foliage obscure the edges so that there are no obvious lines of paving. Along the border of the garden’s ponds, gravel and boulders must be mostly covered by foliage (or moss). On occasion, this overhanging foliage must be tamed a bit as it becomes too exuberant, and this is where my wife’s obsession is handy.Dwarf hemlock, hosta, ferns, and ivy

Years ago, to fill spaces between new shrubs I planted varying types of ivy. Needlepoint and variegated ivies grow more slowly than the typical English ivy, but these are still ivies that will eventually grow over anything in their path. So, regular attention is required to keep the paths to the front and rear entries open, and since no science is required to pruning the vigorous ivies, this is an ideal chore for my wife. If this task were left to me I have little doubt that the paths would be quickly covered over.

In recent years my wife has gone back to work, and currently she’s taking online classes so that she has little time to prowl about creating havoc (or restoring order to hear her tell it). I’ll occasionally catch her roaming with pruners in hand, but beyond the front and back walks the remaining stone paths and patios are pretty much left to me to take care of, or not, as is usually the case.

Subtle charms

There is a place in the garden for extravagant masses of blooms that can be appreciated by neighbors zooming past in their cars, though to my thinking these displays are best suited to commercial properties and entrances to communities. Many homeowners take pride in planting masses of petunias and impatiens that flower without interruption for many months, seemingly without changing at all until frost kills them to the ground. While I’m not averse to plugging New Guinea impatiens into a gap or two, I’m inclined to favor more subtle blooms, even if these flower for considerably shorter periods.Ground orchid in early June

I suppose that any gardener can catalog handfuls of flowers in their garden that they find to be handsome at close range, but not much to talk about from a distance. For me, there is hardly a flower that compares to the lovely ground orchid (Bletilla striata, above) that blooms for a few weeks only, and I am particularly fond of the many varied forms of Japanese iris (Iris ensata, below). If early and late flowering cultivars of iris are selected the blooming season can be extended to four or five weeks, but then the flowers are gone until following spring.Japanese iris growing in a pond

Japanese iris makes an acceptable display from a distance, but the form of the flower is best appreciated much closer up. The small flowers of Toad lilies (Tricyrtis) are hardly visible from more than a few paces away, but these are some of nature’s finest creations upon closer inspection. I’ve assembled a small collection in my garden, with small groupings and single plants scattered about. In late summer and early autumn when many flowers are winding down for the season, toad lilies are at their peak, and I feel compelled to add a new variety or two annually. I’ve yet to find any that are less than splendid, though occasionally I manage to kill a newly planted treasure through neglect.White flowered toad lily in late September

Twice I’ve killed white (above) and yellow flowered toad lilies purchased through the mail, and finally I’ve decided that the small plants do not have adequate roots to survive the lack of care that I often provide for new plantings. Toad lilies are not delicate at all when planted from a larger container, and in both sun and part shade they grow vigorously. The foliage of ‘Miyazaki (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’, below) occasionally suffers a slight amount of scorching along the edges by mid summer, though it is planted with sufficient shade from the afternoon sun, but other toad lilies are not bothered at all. Toad lily in early October

With more shade toad lilies tend to stretch, and a light pruning in early summer is often needed to keep them more compact. If pruned in mid summer, which is when I’m most likely to get around to it, the flowering is delayed for a few weeks, pushing the final blooms far into October. I’ve found that deer mostly ignore toad lilies, but when the remainder of the garden is protected by a repellent deer will nibble the foliage nearly to the ground, so now I routinely spray these along with hostas and more susceptible plants.Tricyrtis Sinonome in late September

The first toad lily I planted was ‘Sinonome’ (Tricyrtis ‘Sinonome’, above), which is also the earliest to flower in my garden. It begins to bloom by mid August, and often will continue into October, but the long period of flowering results in a sparse display compared to other varieties. ‘The foliage of ‘Sinonome’ is pleasant, and in nearly full sun it grows with more compact form than other toad lilies.Lightning Strike toad lily in late September

I’ve found that varying leaf sizes and colors of hostas can be planted side by side with satisfactory results, but the texture and branching habits of toad lilies clash to my eye, so a single variety is best used when several are planted in close proximity. A second variety (or more) look fine if they are planted a few feet away, particularly with Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) or other finely textured plants between them. Toad lily in bud and bloom

I suppose that because toad lilies are not more extravagant bloomers they have not gained widespread popularity, so their distribution remains limited in garden centers. This makes my effort to expand my collection more difficult, but I’ll keep at it, and I’ve not yet given up on the white and yellow flowered types.